To stand or not to stand?

A recent discussion on iWorship, a listserve for Reform congregational ritual committee members and other interested parties, has thankfully inspired me to go back for the post to this blog’s real purpose and strong suit: ritual and liturgy.

The discussion surrounds the issue of whether to sit or stand for the Shma and was started in reaction to a moment in Shabbat worship at the recent URJ Biennial when the service leader asked the Jews in the pews to remain seated for the Shma.

For someone who has spent most of their prayer life in a typical Reform settings, such a request is quite jarring. Indeed, I found it jarring the first time a service leader in NFTY suggested that remaining seated was a legitimate possibility, during the Shma. Remember that the Shma is not the two-line credo that Reform Jews often think of when they use the term “Shma.” It begins with that statement of faith and continues on with several lengthy paragraphs about the nature of divine reward and punishment, acceptance of commandments, and a brief review of several important mitzvot.

It is long, and until relatively, was not seen as central to the service. The center of the service was The Amidah. For me, the Amidah still is the most central litrugical “rubric,” as Larry Hoffman often puts it. So that perceived centrality will certainly color my opinion on this and how this post unfolds. Standing for The Amidah is thus a no-brainer. Standing for an additional, lengthy section is unnecessary.

The Reform movement did a few things to change this. By asserting in early Reform thought the centrality of what they called “ethical monotheism,” the Shma would, of course, come to the forefront of the liturgy. All the more so because, at the same, all but the opening line and the first and final paragraphs of what had been the Shma were excised from most Reform liturgies. This makes the Shma even more focused on what looks like ethical monotheism. For instance, a lenghty section on wearing tzitzit got tossed out along with divine reward and punishment, leaving a much more “ethical” sounding bulk about teaching mitzvot to your childern and about being mindful “in your home and on your way, when you lie down and when you wake up.”

At the same time, The Amidah was robbed of its integrity and much of it began to be recited sitting down. So the Shma replaced it as central and we began to rise for the Shma, but only the first line of it, which was seen as a sort of analog to Christians rising to recite The Nicene Creed.

So here we are. Reform Jews have abridged the Shma and placed a new emphasis on it, which makes it perfect for standing. And that’s by and large what we do. We’ve been at this for a while, and there is little sign of change. This instance at the URJ Biennial and many instances in NFTY and at our camps are grand exceptions, which may well become the rule rather than the exception during my lifetime.

Here’s why I sit during the Shma:

– It’s long. I say the longest version of the Shma, rather than the abridged Gates of Prayer or the less abridged Shabbat morning Mishkan T’filah verion. So given the choice between standing for a long time and sitting for a long time, I’ll go with sitting.

– I don’t look to it as central. Certainly, as someone who has made tzitzit a sort of personal ritual crusade, it’s important to me on the level that it has a lengthy bit about tzitzit, but it’s not the most important thing in the world.

– To me, The Amidah is paramount and of utmost centrality. If there’s going to be one long bout of standing in the service to place emphasis, I’d much rather have it be The Amidah (which after all means “The Standing”).

– When I was first introduced to the idea of sitting, it was explained that you should try not to change your position during a single prayer. Rather, spaces between prayers are the appropriate time to stand or sit, unless there’s some good reason to do otherwise. So if the Shma and V’ahavta, treated often by Reform Jews as two separate things, are really the same prayer, it would be undesirable to stand for the first line (Shma) and then sit back down for the V’ahavta (the other two paragraphs of the Shma that Reform liturgy retains). This made a lot of sense to me and influences my decisions to sit stand and bow at all times.

What do you think? What happens in your community? Do you go along with that or do you defy it, sitting in a place where most stand, or standing in a place where most sit?

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34 Responses to To stand or not to stand?

  1. Elf's DH November 15, 2009 at 4:32 pm #

    It is long, and until relatively, was not seen as central to the service.

    I don’t think that the premise of this post is right. The shema has been a central part of the liturgy going all the way back to the Mishna (at least). The Reform movement’s “chiddush” was that one must stand during shema because of its centrality. A similar argument about conduct during shema is recorded in the mishna, but the reasoning is completely different.

    (Incidentally, I had never heard the term “the v’ahavta” until reading your blog. I had always seen it referenced as “the first paragraph of shema.”)

    • David A.M. Wilensky November 15, 2009 at 5:28 pm #

      That may be. I could be over-emphasizing something here, but I think that in asking that we stand for the Shma and sit for the majority of the Amidah, we make a judgment about which is meant to be more important.

      It’s odd to me that you’ve never heard the term “The V’ahavta.” In hebrew school as a kid it was like, “can you read the Shma? What about the V’ahavta.” I really thought they were separate entities for a long time.

      • Elf's DH November 15, 2009 at 8:59 pm #

        It’s odd to me that you’ve never heard the term “The V’ahavta.” In hebrew school as a kid it was like, “can you read the Shma? What about the V’ahavta.” I really thought they were separate entities for a long time.

        I also never went to a Reform school (by which I mean a school of the Reform movement; not that I went to the other kind either…).

        • David A.M. Wilensky November 16, 2009 at 6:51 pm #

          I suppose if makes sense, then. I just seems very natural to me and to many Reform Jews to divide it up that way because that’s the way that URJ liturgies generally divide it.

  2. Rabbi Jason Rosenberg November 15, 2009 at 4:47 pm #

    It’s also worth mentioning that part of the Reform innovation was in ascribing meaning to the act of standing. For the most part, standing didn’t have any deeper symbolism – it was done when it was needed, mainly because some bowing had to take place. So, we’d stand for the Amidah and the Aleinu, for example, since we have to bow for them. It wasn’t (I’m pretty sure) until Reform Judaism adopted the surrounding culture’s idea that “standing” equals “respect” that it made sense to also stand for the Shema. So, one possibility, when it comes to personal practice, is to not equate the two at all! Stand when you need to, sit when you don’t, and it makes thing simple. Just one thought…

    • David A.M. Wilensky November 15, 2009 at 5:30 pm #

      I’m not sure that standing is a Western sign of respect. I think that body language will be important always and in every culture. The act of standing for a significant liturgical moment can never lack meaning.

      Reformim may have been more explicit about it, but I would argue that the meaning is implicit at least even if you don’t explain in words the meaning of standing up.

      • Elf's DH November 15, 2009 at 9:01 pm #

        There’s probably a dissertation topic hidden in this discussion.

        • David A.M. Wilensky November 16, 2009 at 6:52 pm #

          Probably. Luckily I’m a mere undergrad student so I don’t have to think that hard about it.

    • BZ November 15, 2009 at 5:44 pm #

      What about the practice of standing whenever the ark is open? (Then, of course, there’s the Reform practice of opening the ark for Aleinu…)

      • David A.M. Wilensky November 16, 2009 at 6:53 pm #

        I think it’s silly to stand merely because the ark is open. I’ll stand if the Torah is also standing (rather, a person holding it is standing). I have no reasoning for this.

        • BZ November 16, 2009 at 8:48 pm #

          Ok, but my point was that this practice exists in non-Reform communities too and isn’t tied to bowing.

      • Larry Kaufman November 17, 2009 at 4:05 pm #

        Back when I was attending Rosh Hashanah Day Two services at a Conservative synagogue, they opened the ark for Aleinu. I always kind of assumed that it was because it gave them another bimah honor to dispense.

        • David A.M. Wilensky November 18, 2009 at 7:32 am #

          that’s probably why. not that i’m cynical, but having had a bimah honor on rosh hashanah, i know that synagogues pull those things out of their asses.

  3. Kelly Kossar November 15, 2009 at 6:13 pm #

    I start off by admitting that I work in a strange place, with a unique Jewish community probably not found in many other places.
    At AHA’s Reform minyan, they sit. When I’m in the situation where I feel comfortable making it a personal decision, I stand. I find that I am able to focus better when I am standing. I do find the Shema and V’ahavta central prayers, and, like the Amidah, I personally feel like we should be standing. Either way, I think it needs to be a unified decision. I’ve been in many communities where people will stand for the Shema and sit for the V’ahavta. I believe that we should either be sitting for the prayers entirety, or standing (not a combination of the two.)

    • BZ November 15, 2009 at 6:17 pm #

      Are they calling it the Reform minyan now? When I visited there a few years ago, they weren’t using denominational labels for the minyanim.

      • Kelly Kossar November 15, 2009 at 10:20 pm #

        We usually do use minyan for the word to describe the different prayer groups. When announcing where different minyanim are located after candle lighting friday night, we try to make an effort to say, “those interested in davening in the Reform/Conservative/Orthodox tradition can go to….”
        For the most part, we say minyan.

        • BZ November 15, 2009 at 10:22 pm #

          I wasn’t commenting on the “minyan” part, but the “Reform” part. My recollection when I visited (in 2003) was that the services were named after which siddur they used, so one of them was the “Gates of Prayer service”. (Yes, everyone knows that Gates of Prayer is Reform, but I guess it’s a more limited statement.)

          • Kelly Kossar November 16, 2009 at 9:01 am #

            We only refer to the minyanim by their siddurim on paper. The schedules that we post for Shabbat say Mishkan Tefilah, Sim Shalom, Artscroll/Tehillat Hashem, etc.

            • David A.M. Wilensky November 16, 2009 at 6:56 pm #

              ArtScroll! Somebody get these kids some Korens!

              And… Mishkan! Somebody get these kids some Siddur Eit Ratzon!

              • Rich November 18, 2009 at 4:34 pm #

                I think SER may be liturgically closer to SS than MT.

                • David A.M. Wilensky November 18, 2009 at 9:56 pm #

                  I’m not sure what that means. It may be closer to SS in terms of Hebrew, but it’s approach is far more close to what I think a Reform liturgical approach should be.

    • David A.M. Wilensky November 16, 2009 at 6:55 pm #

      by “unified” do you mean making the same decision for both parts of the Shma or making sure everyone in the community is on the same page about whether to sit or stand?

      • Kelly Kossar November 17, 2009 at 11:26 am #

        I mean making the same decision for both parts of the Shema.

  4. Edible Torah November 16, 2009 at 8:04 am #

    Having moved recently from the Reform traditions that I grew up with to “Egalitarian Traditional” (which is just a post-denominational way of saying we use the Birnbaum siddur, pray a service with the Amidah and repetition along with a full Mussaf service, and read the entire parsha each week; BUT where men and women sit together, women lead services, read from Torah, etc), it didn’t seem jarring to go from standing to say the Shema (Reform) to sitting (which is what we do now). But maybe that’s because so many other things are happening at the same time – gathering tzitzit, covering eyes, preparing to read the much longer version of the v’ahavtah, etc. Oh, and also keeping track of my kids (who are 18. 14, 9 and 6) to see what they are doing.

    What *did* throw me was the ambiguity about standing for the kaddish (whether it be shalem, rabbanan, or mourner’s). At our shul it’s “congregational choice” for all but the mourner’s kaddish, which means that as soon as you hear “yitgadal” a portion of the room stands, the rest remain seated and the newcomers look confused. I’m pretty sure we are living the punchline to an old joke in that regard.

    • Elf's DH November 16, 2009 at 9:49 am #

      Reform traditions that I grew up with to “Egalitarian Traditional”

      Is this an indication that Conservative people are the most embarrassed by denominational association? Priceless.

      What *did* throw me was the ambiguity about standing for the kaddish (whether it be shalem, rabbanan, or mourner’s). At our shul it’s “congregational choice” for all but the mourner’s kaddish, which means that as soon as you hear “yitgadal” a portion of the room stands, the rest remain seated and the newcomers look confused.

      The kaddish standing/sitting custom is probably the case where perceived importance, old congregational custom, and superstition meet in the oddest ways.

      • BZ November 16, 2009 at 10:05 am #

        Is this an indication that Conservative people are the most embarrassed by denominational association? Priceless.

        Conservative Judaism stands for more than a style of davening (or at least claims to), and this particular minyan may not sign on to the rest of that. Furthermore, not all Conservative services read the whole parashah, and not all are fully egalitarian. So the “Conservative” label would both underspecify and overspecify the relevant information.

        • Elf's DH November 16, 2009 at 10:16 am #

          Affiliated-Reform is not uniform in practice either.

          • BZ November 16, 2009 at 10:17 am #

            And do you see a lot of unaffiliated services self-describing as “Reform”?

            • Elf's DH November 16, 2009 at 10:30 am #

              A lot? no. Do I know a lot of unaffiliated services that would fit in that mold? no. (If you want the one potentially unrepresentative sample, there’s one above). It’s just too easy to set you off, BZ. :-)

            • David A.M. Wilensky November 16, 2009 at 6:58 pm #

              No, but wouldn’t it be great if there were unaffiliated services called Reform!?

      • Edible Torah November 16, 2009 at 10:15 am #

        Is this an indication that Conservative people are the most embarrassed by denominational association? Priceless.

        Being no expert, I couldn’t say for certain, but I don’t believe so. I think the separation is at least partially for dogmatic reasons (of course, isn’t it always?).

        Then again, there is a huge difference in the makeup of the services at conservative synagogues in my area (Cleveland, Ohio) and what is done at my shul.

    • BZ November 16, 2009 at 10:01 am #

      Having moved recently from the Reform traditions that I grew up with to “Egalitarian Traditional” (which is just a post-denominational way of saying we use the Birnbaum siddur, pray a service with the Amidah and repetition along with a full Mussaf service, and read the entire parsha each week; BUT where men and women sit together, women lead services, read from Torah, etc)

      If you were really post-denominational, you’d say “and”, not “but”.

      • David A.M. Wilensky November 16, 2009 at 6:59 pm #

        If you were really post-denominational, you’d say “and”, not “but

        Correction. If Edible Torah was as framing-conscious as you, it would be “and,” not “but.”

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    […] talking about the passages that follow that historically were considered part of the Shma? This is a matter of particular concern for liturgist/blogger David A.M. Wilensky, whose own practice of sitting emerges from his view of the Shma and its blessings as a totality. […]